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7 essential points for bear hunting in Florida

Florida will be having its first bear hunt in two decades. The black bear is a conservation success story in the Sunshine State, and because of the species’ population growth, hunting will be used as one part of the FWC’s overall approach in stabilizing expanding bear populations within certain areas of the state.

1) Where you can hunt

The season, which opens Saturday, Oct. 24, will take place in four of Florida’s seven bear management units (BMUs) – the East Panhandle, North, Central and South.

The East Panhandle BMU encompasses the Apalachicola National Forest and Tate’s Hell State Forest, and includes the counties of Bay, Calhoun, Franklin, Gadsden, Gulf, Jackson, Jefferson, Leon, Liberty, Madison, Taylor, Wakulla and Washington. Twenty-three WMAs in this unit will allow bear hunting. The harvest objective in the East Panhandle BMU is 40 bears.

The North BMU contains the Osceola National Forest and Baker, Columbia, Duval, Hamilton, Nassau, Suwannee and Union counties. Six WMAs within this BMU will offer bear hunting, and the harvest objective for the unit is 100 bears.

The Central BMU surrounds the Ocala National Forest and is made up of the counties of Alachua, Bradford, Brevard, Clay, Flagler, Lake, Marion, Orange, Putnam, Seminole, St. Johns, Sumter and Volusia. Hunters will be able to hunt bears on a dozen WMAs in this unit, and the harvest objective in this BMU is also 100 bears.

The remaining bear management unit, the South BMU, comprises the Everglades region and the counties of Broward, Collier, Hendry, Lee, Miami-Dade, Monroe and Palm Beach. Three WMAs in this BMU will have bear hunting this year. The harvest objective for this unit has been set at 80 bears.

There are a total of 44 WMAs within the four open BMUs where bear hunting is allowed this year. Download the “2015 Guide to Bear Hunting in Florida” at MyFWC.com/BearHunting to learn which ones and the particulars of each area’s hunt.

On private property within any of the above mentioned counties in the four open BMUs, with landowner permission, you will be able to hunt bears, given of course, that you have all of the license and permit requirements. Private and public lands in the remainder of the state are closed to bear hunting.

2) Which license and permits you need

To hunt bears, you must have a hunting license (unless exempt) and a bear permit. Permits cost $100 for residents and $300 for non-residents. Everyone wishing to hunt bears is required to have a bear permit – even youth, seniors and people with disabilities. The only people who aren’t required to pay for the permit are those who bought a lifetime hunting license before July 1998. But they still must obtain the permit if they want to hunt bears.

If you will be hunting bears on a WMA that allows bear hunting, besides a hunting license and bear permit, you’ll also need, unless exempt, a $26 management area permit and, if it’s during archery, you’ll need a $5 archery permit; during muzzleloader season, a $5 muzzleloading gun permit. And if the bear hunt is during a quota hunt period, you’ll also be required to have that quota permit.

3) How to find out if a BMU met its harvest objective and closes

Everyone with a bear permit has the opportunity to bear hunt the first two days of the season – Oct. 24-25. But if a BMU reaches its harvest objective, that BMU will be closed to bear hunting for the rest of the season. So beginning Sunday, Oct. 25 after 9 p.m. Eastern Time, hunters will need to check with the FWC to learn about any possible BMU closures by calling 844-FWC-BEAR or going online to MyFWC.com/Hunting. Also, if you follow HuntFlorida on social media, you can find out at Facebook.com/HGM.FWC and Twitter.com/HuntFloridaFWC. Until the harvest objective is met in a particular BMU, the hunt will continue through Oct. 30 in that BMU. And if the season closes early in one BMU, you can always drive over and hunt in another BMU that has not yet met its harvest objective.

4) What methods of take are legal

The shooting hours and legal methods of take for bears are the same as for deer – a half-hour before sunrise to a half-hour after sunset. On private lands you have the choice of using a bow or crossbow, but bows must have at least a 35-pound draw, and all broadheads must have at least two sharpened edges with minimum widths of 7/8 inch. You may use muzzleloaders, but those firing single balls must be at least .40-caliber, and those firing multiple balls have to be at least 20-gauge. Rifles and handguns may be used, but must shoot centerfire rounds. No rimfire cartridges, full metal jacket ammunition or fully automatic firearms are allowed, and semi-automatic rifles must have magazine capacities of no more than five rounds. Shotguns may also be used, and it’s recommended you use either slugs or buckshot.

However, you’ll have to use a bow on a WMA if it’s an archery hunt, and a muzzleloader if it’s a muzzleloading gun hunt. Find out by looking on page 3-4 of the “2015 Guide to Bear Hunting in Florida.”

Baiting bears is prohibited. If you are hunting on private lands where there may be feeding stations for other game animals, a bear cannot be legally taken unless the hunter and the bear are both more than 100 yards away from any such feeding station. Moreover, it is unlawful to use processed food products at game feeding stations in any of the four open BMUs. At game feeding stations in these BMUs, only unprocessed foods like grains (such as corn and soybeans), pelletized feeds (such as protein pellets) and minerals (like salt blocks) that are specifically produced and marketed for feeding deer or hogs can be used. Scented sprays, aerosols or powders that are not food products but are marketed for attracting bears are allowed to be used on private land and WMAs.

Dogs may not be used to hunt bears but a leashed dog may be used to help find a bear that has been shot.

5) What bears are legal to take

The bear a hunter takes may be either sex as long as it weighs a minimum of 100 pounds live weight and is not with any cubs. So if you see a bear you’d like to harvest, wait long enough to make sure it doesn’t have any cubs with it. This is an important step to be sure your hunt is legal and ethical. A cub is defined as a bear that is less than 100 pounds.

Two of the best ways to judge if a bear is an adult and at least 100 pounds is by marking trees that are near your hunting setup, and by the size of the bear’s ears in proportion to its head. Adult Florida black bears are typically at least 3 feet high at the shoulder when on all fours, and you can take a tape measure and mark 3 feet up any tree near your stand so you have a measurement to use if a bear approaches. And a bear’s ears don’t get larger with age, so if you see a bear that appears to have big ears, then it’s a young bear and probably not one that’s legal to take. But if a bear seems to have small ears that are spaced far apart on a large head, then chances are it is an adult bear and one that would be more than 100 pounds.

6) How to comply with mandatory checking of harvested bears

Hunters with a bear permit may only take one bear for the season. And if you are successful in harvesting one, you must bring it to an established bear check station within 12 hours of recovering it to have it checked and get it tagged. Hunters are encouraged to check their bear within the BMU in which it is harvested, because if a BMU reaches its harvest objective and closes, all bear check stations within that BMU will only be open through noon the following day. These bear check stations are located so no matter where you shoot your bear within any of the four open BMUs, you will be no more than about 30 miles from one as the crow flies. Maps listing the locations, addresses and hours of operation of these bear check stations are on MyFWC.com/BearHunting.

You may bring your bear to a check station whole or you can field dress it, but evidence of sex must remain on the carcass, and you may not dismember or quarter your bear until after leaving a check station. FWC staff will weigh your bear, measure chest girth, total length, pull a tooth, take a hair sample, tag it and give you a survey to fill out. Even if you aren’t successful in taking a bear this season, the FWC will mail you the same survey, and we hope that you will take the time to provide us with your feedback.

7) Where you can find more information

If you’d like to participate in this year’s bear hunt, make sure you buy a bear permit by Oct. 23, as that is the last day to purchase one. You can do so at GetOutdoorsFlorida.com, any Florida county tax collector’s office, at most places that sell hunting and fishing supplies or by calling toll-free 888-HUNT-FLORIDA.

Besides listing all of the rules and regulations of the hunt, the “2015 Guide to Bear Hunting in Florida” also provides hunters with lots of useful tips, such as how to find a good bear hunting spot and how to field dress, skin, butcher, preserve and cook a bear. Make sure to download your copy at MyFWC.com/BearHunting. Also, there are several videos about bear hunting on the FWC’s hunting YouTube channel that you’re sure to find helpful. You can view these videos by logging on and subscribing to YouTube.com/HuntFloridaTV.

Please keep in mind as you participate in Florida’s bear hunt that you are part of a conservation effort to keep bear populations healthy and in balance. It is more important than ever that hunters continue to demonstrate their ongoing commitment to ethical hunting. This is one of the best ways to make certain hunting continues to be viewed and perceived in a positive light by others.